Thursday, July 23, 2009
LEAVING OUT THE BORING PARTS:Editing that Works
Lately I've been pulling out older manuscripts that for some reason or other have been languishing, and looking them over to see what in the world is keeping them from selling, or in some cases from even making it out the door.
Some of them I easily decided weren't worth further effort. But some of them are among my very favorite stories, yet for each one there's been some reason why they remain in some sort of unfinished state. Some aren't even complete, and have never been given their chance. Yet I love their stories. Time to rescue them. Go through them, beginning to end and see what they need.
Wow. There's nothing like taking a few years away from a story to see its flaws. Shining like Hollywood searchlights! I've learned a lot and changed a lot since then.
That's where the editing comes in. I've known a few authors who can actually write a first draft clean enough to sell, but most of us can't. My biggest tendency is to over-write. So my editing concentrates on cutting out everything that needs to be cut. And that's what I've been examining most.
When I first heard Elmore Leonard's advice, "Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip," it seemed like such an inane way to state the obvious. Of course I didn't write boring stuff, so it didn't apply to me. Well, I was wrong. I could tell there was something not quite right about my older work, but at first I couldn't put my finger on it. A chapter by itself might sound very exciting, but reading the whole book-
It seems I'd forgotten a few things. Elmore was right. So I got to thinking about what I skip in other people's books.
1. Some love scenes. When a love scene starts to feel like there's nothing new about it, I start skimming. But what I figured out was, it's not the sex that doesn't work- that's sort of incidental. If the plot gets set aside or the lovemaking gives the feeling that there's nothing at stake, the scene is boring. But it's hot as Youknowwhere if the hero and heroine had to put up a wild fight to get to the making love scene, especially if they still have a big fight ahead before everything works out.
2. Lists. Actually I mean over-describing. When the scene is chock full of details describing everything from the patterned draperies to the dust on the floor, there I go skimming again. I'm trying to let the reader do a little of her own imagining, and just give a few sensory hints.
3. Wordy or overly historical dialogue. Complex wording. Trim, cut, simplify. It's the story that should matter, not the glorious words. Save those for poetry.
4. Scenes that don't go anywhere. I'm not too bad about this, but in every book I'll find at least one scene that seems to have no real purpose. If I can only think of one reason for the scene, I ask myself if there's another scene where I can get that point across. The worst place for this is in the opening of the book. Some authors spend two or three chapters getting into the story. I'll probably give them 10 pages and if they still sipping tea in the parlor and discussing new crumpet recipes, I'm off to play Sudoku. Readers get plenty of polite chit chat in their daily lives. They pick up a book because they want an escpe from the ordinary.
5. Dialogue that wanders around, trying to find a conversation. Same as above. Every single line of dialogue needs to contribute, make the story move forward.
6. Repetition. This happens in many ways. Since I usually write books over a long time, sometimes I think I haven't made a vital point. So I do it again. And again. Sometimes I use nearly the same wording. Sorry, time to re-work that. Once is enough.
In internal monologue, and author sometimes thinks the heroine's big problem doesn't seem apparent in the current scene, so it's mentioned again. Internal monologue can be the worst offended in repetition, and it's really the weakest way to get across what's going on in a person's head anyway. Showing it through body language and action is better because it's visual. Thoughts aren't, so they lose power.
The worst habit, though, is to doubt your ability to get your point across so much that you not only show it in action, you then explain it. And then you have the poor character stop to think over what's just been done and why. Say it once.
7. Oh, wait, that's not the worst. The worst is forgetting the story must have conflict in every single page. No hero is exciting, no matter how sexy he is, if he doesn't have a problem and face high obstacles to solve it. He's no hero if he just goes around having fun or making love. The most boring story in the world is the one that can be broken down to this formula:
"Boy meets girl. Boy gets girl. The End."
That's a daydream, not a story.
Happy editing! And may you put lots of story back into your story!